World by Bike: Adventures in Austin
To think, I could be writing this from New Mexico or Colorado, but instead I'm riding the rails back north from Texas, currently blasting through Little Rock, Arkansas. It's interesting the power of decisions, and the ripples on the pond from a simple 'yes'.
The good weather in Chicago wasn't to last, so I decided to put a big day between me and the Windy City before the storms and flash-flood risks returned. I left my hosts, world travellers in their own right, opening my eyes to a whole bunch of different couch-surfing+ communities, like HelpX where you contact farmers/land owners and agree to work a few hours a day for room and board. There are so many undiscovered worlds and communities, it's amazing what you uncover meeting new people.
Heading south, I'd rather optimistically decided to try and hit 140 miles for the day with the other accommodation option being just 40 miles south of The Loop, but I wanted to make good use of the final day of warmer weather for a while. Granted, there was always the option of camping, but for me I like to use it as a last resort. It’s not that I have an issue with camping, it's just that I really enjoy meeting others and gaining a little insight into their lives, and camping can often be a lonely affair.
I eventually picked up the historic Route 66 after around 90 miles that day after some slow and winding trails, and some brutal open farmland. Whereas typically I can hold 15mph on the flat with a fully-laden bike, I was barely maintaining 10mph with the strong winds on the open plains of central Illinois. Night fell and I stopped for snacks and truck-stop coffee before ploughing on into the darkness. It wasn't particularly late, but this far east in the Central Time Zone, it gets dark quite early. Luckily Route 66 is quiet as Interstate 55 runs parallel through Illinois which made the four hours of night riding that bit safer.
With about 20 miles to go however, and fatigue setting in, I had a minor incident. I can't remember what I was doing exactly, either looking at the map or watching a car past in my little rear-view mirror attached to my handlebars, but the white strip at the edge of the road shoulder suddenly cut in and the shoulder stopped. The tarmac disappeared and dropped 4 inches beneath the main carriageway, giving way to gravel and sand. Seeing the drop late I tried to drag the front wheel back onto the main roadway but it was too late. The wheel slipped out beneath me and I tumbled off the left of the bike as the wheels dug into the sand in the verge on the right hand side of the road. I rolled over a couple of times and I jumped up, trying to ignore any pains until I was clear of the road. My helmet light revealed that a pannier bag had come off, and my phone had fallen out of its case along with my credit cards. I quickly gathered the scattered items, wheeled the bike completely off the edge of the carriageway, and waved on a nearby slowing pick-up truck. A cut to my right hand, a graze to my right hip, and a slow drip of blood from my left knee were all the damage I suffered, and the bike soldiered on valiantly. The worst damage was probably to my credit cards as the metal chips had worn as they skidded across the surface of the tarmac. I've since checked them both in an ATM and they’re fine - they just look a little battle-scarred.
I eventually arrived in Bloomington-Normal that night, apologised to my host family for my tardiness, and spent the evening talking late into the night about the relative political situations in our countries and learning about their lives. They were kind enough to let me hang out until mid-afternoon the next day to avoid the rain, just heading the short 40 miles to my next stop.
The town of Illiopolis was off Route 66, but I'd had an offer of accommodation, although I was a little unsure about this one. The couples' description on the couch-surfing website proudly professed of their Christianity, and that they hoped people would come to stay and that they'll be praying for people on their journeys. Now I'd say that I'm a Christian, but I know that there are some people who go by that title who can be so outlandish that they come across as pretty whacky, so I was nervous about people seemingly so in-your-face about their beliefs. (For the record I don't have a problem with people passionate about what they believe, it's just that the people who fit the description of 'whack-jobs' are also likely to be in-your-face about things… I digress).
The couple were lovely, however. They cooked up a great meal, offered to do some laundry for me, and shared great tales of their trips biking all over the States - 48 states and counting, just Arkansas and Nevada to go. They told of how they love to share what they have, and love the spontaneity of some of their adventures, one time riding from the Rocky Mountains to Illinois with their three year-old daughter in a trailer behind them. They then mentioned that they were driving down to Texas in a few days to visit their now grown-up daughter. Almost as if to validate their stories and evidence their kind-heartedness, they asked whether I wanted to drive down with them to Austin for a few days. Initially, I passed it off as just a polite, but not real invitation, and in my mind I was still on a mission to get south before it got too cold. However, reflecting on it, I realised the weather was already getting cold was meant to be getting worse over the next few days before improving. Also, if this trip was all about trying new things and saying 'yes' to new experiences, then why not take a few days off in Texas? Worst case scenario was that I wasted a few days down in the Texan state capital (I'd already decided the worst case scenario of them kidnapping me was less than unlikely).
After a day in the Illinois state capital of Springfield, a town now dedicated to immortalising the legacy of President Lincoln, we embarked upon the 1000 mile road trip down to Austin, Texas. It's really interesting the way that in a country as large as this, driving that far is no big deal. At home I feel as though no-one would consider driving from Land's End all the way up to John O'Groats, let alone doing it in a day. It's such a different way of looking at things. They told me they put 40,000 miles on their mini-van (people-carrier) already this year. That's the entire circumference of the equator!
Initially I felt it was difficult joining a family for their family holiday. I felt like as nice as the couple had been, I'd get in the way and be a burden. How could I not be? Imagine sitting down for a family meal and there's a random out-of-towner there, someone you've never met. It was bizarre to me, but they were incredibly hospitable and I felt like any initial awkwardness vanished and we quickly meshed together. Over the week we visited multiple doughnut establishments featuring 1kg Texas-sized pastries, they took me to an outstanding barbecue joint, and showed me all the sites downtown. They shared everything with me, and I was genuinely touched by their openness and servant-hearted nature. We attended church together, and in another incredible coincidence, the whole family held almost exactly the same theological stance as me. I’d expected the couple to be very old-school, tradition-based Christians as they were of a similar age to my parents and were living in a small town of just 900 people - I figured Lutherans or Baptists was a good guess. This could have potentially caused tensions when they wanted to discuss ideas and visit church, like we did twice at Celebration Church, Austin. However it worked out wonderfully smoothly and I couldn’t have found a better church out there myself. With three meetings a weekend, each with around 2000 people in attendance, in a stadium-sized complex complete with a car-park-to-door golf buggy service to ease your way into the building, this church was mega, alright. Everything is done massively out here. It's encouraging to see a gathering of this size, especially in the knowledge that they had a second site in downtown Austin, and they weren't the only mega-church in the area. I did find it interesting though to hear that the church's new downtown site was being protested, despite Austin being a super-liberal city relative to the rest of Texas. I presume it was a protest against the church's relatively conservative views, but I’d never known a church to be protested back home, so it was a new experience for me.
After a couple days in Austin, checking out the music scene on 6th Street, and visiting Lance Armstrong's bike store, I took the opportunity that a $16 bus ticket to go to Houston presented to have a look around town, brush up on my US history and visit my cousin whom I hadn’t seen in over 10 years. I’d never consider driving over to Swansea for just a night at home, but there I was on a 3hr bus ride to Houston for whistle-stop tour (I've found out that that phraseology doesn't translate over here). I used the time and the bus Wi-Fi to learn about how Texas came to be an independent state, having originally been Mexican, before acceding to the Union of the United States after the Civil War. I was relatively clueless about any of this stuff, but it's really interesting, especially when you think about how recent the history is. Even the city of Houston is only named as such as an advert by the founders of the town to get Sam Houston to be the first President of Texas, just 150 odd years ago. Then when you think that people who are alive today would have known grand-parents and great-grandparents involved in these conflicts it makes you realise how quick the US has grown. The more I investigate US history and the more I realise about the scale of this country, the more I am amazed the country functions as a unit as well as it does. You realise how important the allegiance to the flag is, and why there needs to be the same patriotism here - it almost has to exist in such a big way like it does otherwise I think things could easily fall apart.
I had a great time in Houston, managing to meet up with my cousin who'd moved out to Texas from the UK for work, but now has settled down there with a wife and a couple of energetic young children. It was really interesting to hear from a Brit what life is like in the States, as living in the US has always been something appealing to me, at least for a season. They introduced me to some great Tex-Mex food and gave me lots of great tips for looking around Houston. It was lovely meeting members of the extended family I hadn’t met before and was cool to get a reacquainted a little with my cousin, however brief my stopover was. There was something really comforting about spending time in their suburb of Houston, and I'm very grateful they took me in at short-notice and provided the excellent hospitality they did, despite me not having met 3/4 members of their little clan. The next day, on their recommendation I went to a breakfast restaurant specialising in a uniquely Texan chicken wings & waffle breakfast. It felt wrong to pour syrup all over deep-fried wings, but it was actually a hearty breakfast. It was brilliant. The crunch and saltiness of the wings perfectly complemented the soft waffle texture and sweetness of the syrup. There you go, a moving food review by David Haywood - that's about as detailed as it's getting. Just check out the Breakfast Klub if you're in south Houston.
Anyway, back in Austin I'd decided to get try and acquire tickets to see the Formula 1 race in Austin that weekend. The track isn't far from the city, and it was markedly cheaper than going to the Grand Prix back home. Calling in a few early Christmas present favours to contribute to the cost, Sunday rolled around and I went to the Circuit of the Americas. The unseasonably (un-Texan) rain all week had made areas of the grounds around the track boggy but that didn't dampen the enthusiasm of the fans. It was a great atmosphere and I really enjoyed watching the race live, and hearing the noise of the cars, seeing the drivers in the flesh. I really appreciate getting to go those types of events. For me it makes the sportspeople, who are so idolised in society, seem like regular people, and you realise the scale of the operation to put on the show for the fans. It opens my eyes to the possibilities out there in life, whether it's working in the team garage's, in the media, as a venue host, or even as a racer. Seeing it in the flesh makes it more real for me, and therefore seem more achievable. I'm not saying I'm pursuing any of these things, but it does teach me that I shouldn't waste time being bored in whatever I'm doing. There are so many things out there to do, to learn, to master and to experience, so I shouldn't waste time being bored with something.
That was really an extended 'note-to-self', but maybe that's just what a blog is. I don't know.
After the race and the track invasion, the circuit hosted a Britney Spears concert in an attempt at trying to entice US fans to attend the race, as Formula 1 is still in its infancy in North America relative to Indycar and NASCAR racing. After realising quickly that I wasn't a massive Britney fan, and that I wasn't that interested in watching her dance and mime her lyrics, I attempted to find a way back to Downtown Austin. I was fortunate enough to be dropped off at the track in the morning by my host family before they drove back up to Illinois, but this had meant I hadn't bought a bus shuttle ticket, and I wasn't able to buy one at the track. Hoping to blag my way onto a bus and avoid the $200 Uber, I got chatting to a couple of other Brits, one Austin-based and the other, the first guy's nephew, who was now based up in Vancouver after working as a cop in Staines (the next town over from me back home) - such a small world! It turned out they were in a similar situation to me but we all managed to get back to town on a bus ticketless. We chatted the whole way back to Austin, and when we arrived we decided to check out some of the famous 6th street music bars. These bars make Austin the live music capital of the US, even above Nashville in Tennessee, by whatever measure Wikipedia or the city council use to bring in tourists. My and my new British friends had a great night, and they refused to let me get a round of beers as I was travelling. I was touched that a pair of complete strangers a couple hours earlier were looking out for me and my wallet. I did help in getting a round later on when the nephew and I managed to beat a group of Austrian chefs at Jenga, winning a couple of beers off them. The chefs were travelling with the Formula 1, and it seemed like a really cool job if you were an F1 fan. Whereas I was back on a train the next day back to Illinois, they were flying down to Mexico City for the next stage of the travelling F1 world-tour. It sounded like fun to me.
My night ended back in Voodoo doughnuts, then catching an Uber to my accommodation with a driver whose main source of income is trading in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Litecoin. That's a whole other world. I arrived at a couch-surfing destination and tried the front door as the host was absent. Presuming it was the right address, the door opened, I went in and I feel asleep for the my last night in Texas. The next morning I was jumping on the Texas Eagle train for railroad journey all the way back north to Springfield, IL. 25 hours and no Wi-Fi, brutal. It did mean I got to finish this post though.
Overall I had an excellent time in Texas. I'm so glad I said agreed to go down to Austin, and I'm very thankful for the family I became part of for the week, the family I was reacquainted with and the strangers that I became friends with. I think I'm slowly adjusting my psychology to make everything Texas-sized, and I'm trying harder to embrace the giving and sharing culture I experienced with my host family this week. Stemming from their faith, they view everything they receive and have as a gift. As it’s a gift it's not truly theirs, and so they want to help and serve others with what has been given to them, almost like being stewards. I love that way of living, and their youthful exuberance in the spontaneity in the way they live is refreshing. Every day seems to be an adventure for them, even in their day-jobs as teachers as they don't know who they could help, or who they could serve that day. It appears to genuinely excite them to find a fun story in whatever they do. It was lovely to be part of that, even if just for a few days. I can't thank them enough for letting me join their family holiday. It was a lesson in saying to things, and a lesson in giving - but giving and sharing Texan-sixed! Do it big, and find joy in it.
The train was cool, but some kid threw up in the isle and it smelled. That's my review. 3* on Trip Advisor.